Right from the days of old manor houses the landed gentry and royalty were automatically taken care of by household staff. In those days, the upper echelons of the household hierarchy were peopled by the local landowners and even the minor members of the master’s family. Sometimes high ranking staff were of noble origins, becoming both attendants and companions. Living with a wealthy and powerful family meant they enjoyed privileges and learnt skills otherwise unavailable to them; they in exchange swore a long-term loyal allegiance to their master’s household.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, when even rich farmers, scolars and merchants could afford servants, therefore more staff were required and engaged. Gradually they began to be employed from a humbler background, and for the first time women were able to take more responsible positions.

By the end of the century a number of books were written to educate these new employers in matters of dealing with household staff and household management. Their purpose was to give clear advice on ‘how to handle staff’ as well as teaching servants the correct execution of their duties.

By the Victorian era more female servants were employed, especially by the middle classes who drew guidance from The Servant’s Practical Guide and later from the reassuring advice of Mrs. Beeton. She knew all too well the way that an autocratic cook might indulge in a reign of terror so she wrote: The kitchen must no longer be sanctum sanctorum, into which even the mistress cannot enter without being considered as an impertinent intruder…

As the nineteenth century progressed and new fortunes were made more and more people, from many types of backgrounds, took to employing a large variety of reliable household staff to run their homes.

While at the same time many had also began to take up residence in large imposing multi-storey town houses. This style of vertical living led to the ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ distinction between the master and his family, who enjoyed the home comforts of their parlours, morning rooms and dining rooms, and those employed below stairs to make their lives as comfortable and cosseted as possible.

In the vast majority of large Victorian country houses kitchens, sculleries and other rooms purely dedicated to domestic toil were located in gloomy basements, often approached by long cheerless passageways. In these circumstances domestic servants were on the move, up and down the stairs, for most of each day carrying meals, water for washing, fuel for fires, cleaning equipment and then making rooms habitable for the following day long after their sleeping employers had gone to their beds.

New technology ensured a higher standard of living and an easier time for servants with the first mechanical carpet sweepers or knife sharpeners. This however, did not decrease the number of household staff required, it simply meant that there were higher standards in many households.

It was also generally recognized that the way in which servants performed their duties’ greatly affected the smooth working of the household, for without the co-operation of loyal and properly trained servants even the most famous hostess in the land courted social disaster.

Soon nearly every substantial country house boasted an army of servants which included valets, footmen, houseboys, housekeepers, cooks, chefs, a team of parlour maids, kitchen maids, grooms and stable boys, all overseen and managed by the butler. The huge team was necessary because of the sheer amount of man hours required to complete each task. Even the lowly scullery maid had a huge work load as is shown in this extract from the life of a servant:

She stood at a sink behind a wooden dresser backed with choppers and stained with blood and grease, upon which were piles of coppers and saucepans that she had to scour, piles of dirty dishes she had to wash. Her frock, her cap, her face and arms were more or less wet, soiled, perspiring and her apron was a filthy piece of sacking, wet and tied round her with a cord. The den where she wrought was low, damp, ill-smelling, windowless, lighted by a flaring gas-jet……with many ugly dirty implements around her.

Servants at the humbler level of employment tended to be permanent fixtures, often inheriting their job from parents or siblings. They were trained up from young to spend a lifetime in service. The pecking order of domestic staff in past times was as carefully regimented as the social ladder was for their employers and many sought to improve their standing in the household.

So rigid was the servant hierarchy that many junior servants in large households seldom, if ever, saw their masters or mistresses, the responsibility of their lives below stairs fell to the senior servants, in particular the house steward, who organized all matters of pay, accommodation, correct dress and eating.

Life in service could be very regimented and dictatorial, with little time off and the knowledge that romantic relations between servants were forbidden in many houses. On the other hand it also offered assured security and a kind of ready-made ‘family’ for those who were prepared to devote their life to serving their ‘betters’, with staunch loyalty often rewarded with a small pension or a retirement cottage on the estate.

It wasn’t until the First World War, and to a lesser extent the Second World War, that Britain’s great families  lost an army of household staff and had to manage with what they could get in the way of help. Many changed their way of life completely, abandoning a hitherto privileged existence, while others took on daily or part-time staff or began to explore the possibilities of outsourcing laborious tasks or using even freelance domestic staff.  So a new pattern of society began to emerge that eventually gave more bargaining power to the last remaining members of the ‘servant classes’.

These days at vast country estates  there is still a real need for a sizeable team of household staff and outside staff, but in the 21st century household staff are more likely to have several different and interchangeable skills instead of doing the same type of job all their lives. There is now much more pressure on top-quality staff as they are expected to perform beautifully in the same time-honoured way of their forefathers but are also probably required to possess computer and technical know how.

In addition many household staff are now being drawn into the world of corporate entertainment particularly those who work for stately homes that need to bring in a good income to support all the staff – how things have changed in the last hundred years!